Don’t get me wrong — if David Petraeus really wants to trade in his uniform to be the chief second in command in the American intelligence community, he’s earned the privilege of choosing his next assignment. The general who redefined asymmetrical warfare for the US military and successfully applied counterinsurgency strategies in two difficult wars has leadership credibility for any job that suits his fancy. However, NPR’s report on rumors around the campfire fails to explain why Petraeus would want the job, or why anyone else would want him anywhere else than where he is at a critical moment of the Af-Pak war:
General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is expected to leave that job by early fall. And the question has been, where does he go from there?
Several sources, including government officials, say Petraeus is being seriously considered for CIA director, and would take the job if offered.
The current spy chief, Leon Panetta, is currently seen as the top replacement for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who says he will step down this year.
Not to be too cliché, but the position of CIA Director isn’t what it used to be. Prior to the ill-advised restructuring of the American intelligence services in 2004, the CIA Director had full command of the agency and reported directly to the President. Now the position supposedly reports to the Director of National Intelligence, although the appointment of Panetta and subsequent food fights between Panetta and Dennis Blair created major problems for Barack Obama in 2010. Why would a man used to having full command of a battlefield for the last several years settle for a murky second position and uncertain access to the President?
For that matter, why would the White House want Petraeus to leave his current position? Before Stanley McChrystal got more or less cashiered, they had a succession plan for their COIN all-star. With rising discontent over the war, Obama needs to have the perceived A-team in charge, and not just for public relations purposes. Petraeus has irreplaceable credibility on that score, but perhaps irreplaceable brilliance in this particular type of war. Obama cannot afford setbacks in this theater, especially not after the gains made over the last year or so on the ground, unless he’s looking for a way out — and he’s had plenty of opportunity to retreat already, and could retreat with or without Petraeus in place. To his credit, Obama hasn’t used those opportunities.
Petraeus has enough popularity after his heroic work in two theaters of war that any administration would want to find a place for him when he’s ready to come home from the front. This position seems like a poor fit in many ways.